Review: Age of Empires Online

Doing my last post got me interested in Age of Empires again, so I finally decided to give Age of Empires Online a try. The game was actually released more than a year ago, but I resisted trying it out because I don’t like games that try to lure you in for free then make you pay for more. This is still slightly true, but the system has been tweaked a little bit so you can now actually play completely for free. But I get ahead of myself; on to the review!

First of all, the game is available by direct download (a whopping 5GB), which seems simple, but there are some problems with the client in which you are sometimes asked for a product key (which it doesn’t give you). I don’t really know how I managed to fix the problem, but I’m sure Googling the problem would find you a solution.

When you finally get the game started, the first thing you notice is the new artwork. The austere emotionless sprites of yesteryear have been replaced with happy cartoonish characters. This has turned some veterans off the game, as it gives the game a rather cheap feel. This is a pity, as the deep strategic gameplay is still there. Although it looks a little dumbed-down for the new market, it actually has all of the features that made the Age of Empires franchise famous.

Pretty much everything else has gone though. The story-based campaign has been replaced with an RPG-like quest system in which you work on leveling up your Capital City. The game has taken (as you probably guessed by the name) a very social turn. You can finish quests in co-op mode, or play PvP with your friends. The only problem arises if you, like me, don’t have any friends who play Age of Empires, then you’ll probably never get to test your wits without some tribal leader telling to to find deer herds or kill some caravans.

I say probably never because there is a way to play random map games. Unfortunately, it costs 450 Empire Points to unlock, which is near impossible to earn without making purchases. Around where I’m at (Level 5) there is a quest where you can play a demo random map game every 12 hours, which is painful because you can see a whole bunch of settings and maps that you can’t use until you get your EP. This is obviously a serious drawback to the game, as Random Map games have been the bread and butter of all previous Age of Empires games.

So if you’re looking for a good strategy game to play, have lots of friends who do too, and have lots of time to build up your Capital Cities, then Age of Empires Online is perfect for you. But if you are looking to get straight into the action with a customisable match against a computer, or follow a deep story-based campaign, then stick to one of the older Age of Empires games. They are not free, and have less updated graphics, but they playable without feeling like part of a business idea.

What are your thoughts on this game? Would you like Microsoft to make more games like it, or go back to the old format? Tell us in the comments!

Review: Age of Empires II: Gold Edition

Developer: Ensemble Studios | Year: 1999 | List Price: $9.99 | Buy from Amazon

I just recently re-took interest in this game, as it was one of the games I enjoyed most not too long ago. I did a review on Age of Empires III a little while ago, and I actually got that game before Age of Empires II, so I’ll use that for an excuse for this long-overdue review.

I think I should say before I start that I own the Mac port for the game, but I don’t think there are any differences between versions. (As a side note, if you have Lion, you can’t actually play Age of Empires II on Mac anymore, at least not without some tinkering, as it is a PowerPC application which Apple no longer supports.) Regardless of the platform, Age of Empires II is a significant milestone of the real-time strategy genre. The Age of Empires franchise was actually the first historical RTS franchise and is probably the most well-known.

Age of Empires II continues where Age fo Empires left off, at the fall of the western Roman empire. You begin the game with a small settlement with a few villagers and almost no technology. As your town grows, you can research new technologies and develop your armies. The ultimate goal is to vanquish your enemies on the battlefield and be the only tribe left on the map.

There are many civilisations to lead to victory. The 13 Middle Age civilsations include the likes of the Britons, Goths, Saracens, and Mongols. Unfortunately, unlike later games, there isn’t really much difference between civilisations: They have only slightly different sets of units, and each has only one unique unit. There are also many campaigns to play. Not including the learning campaign, there are 5 different campaigns, all separate from each other and with different difficulty levels.

The game actually has an extremely deep strategy system, even when compared to more modern titles. There are formations for your troops to assume, four different resources to stockplile, even features which the newer Age of Empires III does not have, such as a primitive diplomacy system with trading ships and carts.

There is also an expansion pack called the Conquerors, which adds 5 new civilisations, 4  new campaigns, and a whole host of new units, technologies and maps. This in itself is not really so revolutionary, but there are also new features that make the gameplay smoother and easier, such as smarter villagers, buying replacement farms in advance, and some general UI improvements. The expansion pack really adds a lot to the game, and fortunately nowadays it is usually bundled in.

Obviously where this game loses out in our time is in graphics. At 13 years old, Age of Empires II is not exactly a new game, and this is rather apparent. On newer, larger screens, the game is extremely dotty and animations seem awkward and cheesy sometimes. Of course, this could be a good thing, too, as you no longer have to worry if you have adequate system requirements and the game never freezes or jumps. If you are younger, or just new to video games of this type, this may not be a good entry, as newer games are often simpler and more logical, and have more well-defined graphics.

Game length could also present an issue to some. When compared against other strategy games, games are actually rather short, but modern casual games have made the general population more impatient with their games, and while Age of Empires III has games lasting about half-an-hour to an hour, Age of Empires II easily doubles that.

So basically, if you are looking for a good RTS to just try out, this may not be the first choice, but if you are experienced in the genre and determined to suffer through out-dated graphics, then this game is an extremely nice piece of RTS history, at a price reasonably lower than you would get for a more modern game.

List Price: $9.99 | Buy from Amazon

What do you think? Do you play Age of Empires II? Tell us in the comments!

Also, be sure to check out the rest of our videogame-related reviews and articles!

Review: Meccano Super Construction Set

Manufacturer: Meccano Ltd. | List Price: $139.99 | Buy from Amazon

I am not really a toy-playing kid. I had some toys around, and had a bit of fun fiddling with Lego and the like, but reading and playing video games were always more appealing to me. But when I heard about Meccano from James May’s Toy Stories earlier this year, I got quite excited. So it was the work-hard-at-school-and-use-the-report-card-to-get-toy technique. On with the review.

The first thing that distinguishes Meccano (known as Erector in the States) from every other construction toy on the market is it’s durability. The main pieces are made of metal, with secondary pieces made from hard plastic. The metal is stiff enough to not warp or bend too much, yet just flexible enough to at least consider shifting it a bit here or there to get that bolt in.

It’s also highly educational. While Lego only lets you shape it into whatever you want, Meccano really lets you build a scale version of the real thing. The pulleys and mechanisms are a very good representation of the real machines, and almost without knowing it, you’ve just learnt a great deal about real-life mechanics.

The Super Construction Set is one of the more versatile sets available today. Surpassed in grandeur only by the 50 Model Set, it has many more pieces than both it and the similarly-priced 40 Model Set. Although it has only 25 models in its book, there is likely much more you can do with this set, as it has 643 parts, more than any other set. It does lack gears (which I’m not sure if the other sets have), but some tyres can be attached to pulleys, using friction to do the same thing. Like the Meccano of old, it also comes in a sturdy plastic box, with compartments to organise your parts. This is a great addition, as it saves you from having to search through a huge pile of parts every time you reopen the box.

One thing that discourages first-time Meccano boys is the difficulty of the Meccano system. At 14 years old, I’m a good 6 years older than the recommended age of 8, and I still find myself extremely confused with the instructions sometimes. It seems this is common, because on the Meccano website’s FAQ, they recommend children work on the models with a parent. Of course this is a great strategy, because the ultimate Meccano combination is the brain-power of an adult combined with the nimble fingers of an eight-year old child.

The only real downside to Meccano nowadays is that it has largely lost touch with it’s humble beginnings as an English engineering toy. Since its management’s move to France, the friendly instructions and commentary in the old instruction booklets have been replaced by wordless international IKEA-style booklets. The free system of making exactly what you design has now become the more Lego-ish specialised set where the capabilities do not go much beyond what is in the instruction booklet. Also, gone are the days when a cheerful old Meccano dealer would sell you individual parts you needed for your grand crane or train. As a result, the Meccano you would be able to buy now could not be further from the Meccano you see in James May’s Toy Stories.

Old Meccano is still available from second hand dealers on the internet, and though more durable and versatile, comes with often hefty price tags, as you’ll have competition from the huge cult following vintage Meccano has. But if you can snag a deal at a garage sale or pawn shop, then it may be a better choice than getting the modern sets. If you have adequate parts, you can still build many models from old instruction manuals or read the now discontinued Meccano Magazine.

Despite its drastic change of personality, if you are looking for a fun educational toy for your child (or yourself), Meccano, even the new variety, is still a great choice. If you have had experience with Meccano before, then you may be a little disappointed with what it’s become today, but there is no denying that Meccano is still one of the – if not the – best construction toy on shelves today.

List Price: $139.99 | Buy from Amazon

Have you had the fortune to try Meccano out, new or old? Tell us all about it, in the comments?

Watch: New Doctor Who Series 7 Trailer

Back when Kantaloupe first started back in September 2011, Doctor Who was one of the main subjects this site dealt with. There would be a weekly review of the latest episode, along with other interesting news. This news has since slowed down, but it seems Who is in the air once again with the release earlier today of the latest trailer from the BBC:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLKGePNr61k]

There was another teaser trailer a few months back, but that focused mainly on one episode, which appears to be set in the Wild West. This new trailer, on the other hand, is more revealing about the other episodes in the series. However, his trailer cannot be representative of the whole next series, as they only show events concerning the Pond (or Williams) family. As we know, Amy and Rory only have until the Christmas Special left. After that, the new companion, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, will begin her adventure.

Something the trailer really focuses on is the first episode of the new series, Asylum of the Daleks. The episode will of course feature the Daleks, whom we haven’t really seen since the finale of Series 4. As such, this is a much-anticipated story and judging by the looks of the new clips we’ve seen, I don’t expect it’ll disappoint.

If you’re wondering what the new series will look like, Hypable.com has a nice compilation of what the producers have released so far. It may not be 100% accurate, but it’s something nice to look at.

What do you think about this new trailer? Are you as excited as us about the new series later this month? Tell us in the comments!